As you likely know by now, much of the film takes place in the head of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, with five emotions - Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust - embodied by characters who help Riley navigate her world. The film has some deep things to say about the nature of our emotions - which is no coincidence, as the Greater Good Science Center’s founding faculty director Dacher Keltner served as a consultant on the film, helping to make sure that, despite some obvious creative liberties, the film’s fundamental messages about emotion are consistent with scientific research.
Those messages are smartly embedded within Inside Out‘s inventive storytelling and mind-blowing animation; they enrich the film without weighing it down. But they are conveyed strongly enough to provide a foundation for discussion among kids and adults alike. Some of the most memorable scenes in the film double as teachable moments for the classroom or dinner table.
Though Inside Out has artfully opened the door to these conversations, it can still be hard to find the right way to move through them or respond to kids’ questions. So for parents and teachers who want to discuss Inside Out with children, here we have distilled four of its main insights into our emotional lives, along with some of the research that backs them up. And a warning, lest we rouse your Anger: There are a number of spoilers below.
This reflects the way that a lot of leading emotion researchers see happiness. Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of the best-selling How of Happiness, defines happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” (emphasis added) So while positive emotions such as joy are definitely part of the recipe for happiness, they are not the whole shebang.
In fact, a recent study found that people who experience “emodiversity,” or a rich array of both positive and negative emotions, have better mental health. The authors of this study suggest that feeling a variety of specific emotions may give a person more detailed information about a particular situation, thus resulting in better behavioral choices—and potentially greater happiness.
For example, in a pivotal moment in the film, Riley allows herself to feel sadness, in addition to fear and anger, about her idea of running away from home; as a result, she decides not to go through with her plan. This choice reunites Riley with her family, giving her a deeper sense of happiness and contentment in the comfort she gets from her parents, even though it’s mixed with sadness and fear.
In that light, Inside Out’s creators, including director Pete Docter, made a smart choice to name Poehler’s character “Joy” instead of “Happiness.” Ultimately, joy is just one element of happiness, and happiness can be tinged with other emotions, even including sadness.
Thank goodness emotion researcher June Gruber and her colleagues started looking at the nuances of happiness and its pursuit. Their findings challenge the “happy-all-the-time” imperative that was probably imposed upon many of us.
For example, their research suggests that making happiness an explicit goal in life can actually make us miserable. Gruber’s colleague Iris Mauss has discovered that the more people strive for happiness, the greater the chance that they’ll set very high standards of happiness for themselves and feel disappointed—and less happy—when they’re not able to meet those standards all the time.
So it should come as no surprise that trying to force herself to be happy actually doesn’t help Riley deal with the stresses and transitions in her life. In fact, not only does that strategy fail to bring her happiness, it also seems to make her feel isolated and angry with her parents, which factors into her decision to run away from home.
But critically, prioritizing positivity does not require avoiding or denying negative feelings or the situations that cause them - the kind of single-minded pursuit of happiness that can be counter-productive. That’s a crucial emotional lesson for Riley and her family when Riley finally admits that moving to San Francisco has been tough for her - an admission that brings her closer to her parents.
That’s why we love that Sadness rather than Joy emerges as the hero of the movie. Why? Because Sadness connects deeply with people - a critical component of happiness - and helps Riley do the same. For example, when Riley’s long-forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong feels dejected after the loss of his wagon, it is Sadness’s empathic understanding that helps him recover, not Joy’s attempt to put a positive spin on his loss. (Interestingly, this scene illustrates an important finding from research on happiness, namely that expressions of happiness must be appropriate to the situation.)
In one the film’s greatest revelations, Joy looks back on one of Riley’s “core memories” - when the girl missed a shot in an important hockey game - and realizes that the sadness Riley felt afterwards elicited compassion from her parents and friends, making her feel closer to them and transforming this potentially awful memory into one imbued with deep meaning and significance for her.
One caveat: While it’s important to help kids embrace sadness, parents and teachers need to explain to them that sadness is not the same as depression - a mood disorder that involves prolonged and intense periods of sadness. Adults also need to create safe and trusting environments for children so they will feel safe asking for help if they feel sad or depressed.
Later in the film, when Bing Bong loses his wagon (the scene described above), Joy tries to get him to “cognitively reappraise” the situation, meaning that she encourages him to reinterpret what this loss means for him - in this case, by trying to shift his emotional response toward the positive. Cognitive reappraisal is a strategy that has historically been considered the most effective way to regulate emotions. But even this method of emotion regulation is not always the best approach, as researchers have found that it can sometimes increase rather than decrease depression, depending on the situation.
Toward the end of the movie, Joy does what some researchers now consider to be the healthiest method for working with emotions: Instead of avoiding or denying Sadness, Joy accepts Sadness for who she is, realizing that she is an important part of Riley’s emotional life.